The Lego Batman Movie is a relentless deconstruction of the Batman mythos, with an emphasis on “relentless” as this movie so jam-packed with jokes and sight gags it almost becomes annoying. At the very least it demands a repeat viewing just to pick up on all the things you either missed or laugher over the first time. While making me laugh Lego Batman also taught me something new about the Caped Crusader, not about the existence of such obscure villains as The Condiment King (who I was sadly already familiar with) but about the core identity of a character who’s chiefly been viewed through Frank Miller-colored glasses for far too long: Batman, as I already knew but didn’t fully appreciate, is kind of ridiculous.
Chris Miller and Phil Lord understood as much when they put their highly exaggerated, scene-stealing version of Batman in The Lego Movie, tickling everyone’s funny bone with Will Arnett’s brilliant vocal performance as the man who only ever wears “black and sometimes very, very dark grey.” There was a sort of brilliance to casting Batman as Wyldestyle’s bad boy boyfriend who is quite clearly just an arrested adolescent stuck in a perpetual goth phase, staying up late at night to write songs both lamenting and celebrating his pain. For the purpose of The Lego Movie, Wyldestyle’s boyfriend needed to be a selfish jerk, and thus they made Batman into a total jerk, albeit a somewhat lovable one. However, in both Lego Movie and Lego Batman Movie there’s an unceasing narcissism and self-aggrandizing to Arnett’s Batman, two traits I wouldn’t normally associate with the Dark Knight.
Throughout his many iterations across his nearly 80-year history, Batman is not someone completely obsessed with himself and quick to obscure the truth just to feed his ego, such as claiming his batarang hit on the first try when it clearly took multiple tries. Miller and Lord exaggerated for comedic effect, but I don’t know what exactly they were exaggerating from, other than maybe our popular conception of Batman as being the supreme badass of the comic book world.
Then I saw The Lego Batman Movie, a standalone spin-off helmed by Miller and Lord’s Lego Movie editor Chris McKay, and it all made so much more sense to me.
One early scene features Alfred (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) attempting to assert his parental authority over Batman by commanding him to attend Commissioner Gordon’s retirement party, where Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) is to be revealed as her father’s replacement. Batman hilariously throws a temper tantrum, tossing his body on the ground whilst defiantly proclaiming he doesn’t want to go and Alfred can’t make him. The parents in the audience with me greeted this sight with all too knowing laughter while the children merely laughed at the physical comedy of a Lego Batman awkwardly flailing about on the ground in herky-jerky movements since he can’t exactly move as easily as a normal person. However, for me it felt like this joke illuminated what I had been overlooking about Batman for years:
He really is just an overgrown kid, uncompromising in his vision, reluctant to play with others who challenge his authority, always trying to tyrannically force his will on the world and all too happy to play with his wonderful toys.
That might seem like an overly harsh criticism of a character who has inspired so many for so long as the sole regular guy in a world full of superheroes, a victim of tragedy who remade himself into a force for good in the world. However, it speaks to why exactly characters like Batman and other superheroes have resonated with kids for damn near a century now. As Marvel vice-president Tom Brevoort, whose Iron Man is cleverly mocked in Lego Batman Movie, told The Huffington Post:
“At the most basic level [superheroes] are empowerment fantasies, and for kids even at a young age being able to do stuff and not live in a world where everything’s decided for you by forces that you can’t really comprehend is just very appealing, on a gut level sort of thing.”
Lego Batman Movie explores what happens when Batman is confronted with a world where everything is suddenly being decided for him [light plot spoilers follow]. Alfred insists he take care of an orphan (Michael Cera’s Robin) he doesn’t even know he adopted. Barbara uses cold, hard logic to convince the people of Gotham City that Batman shouldn’t be their sole source of police work, and that for all the good he’s done he never does seem to put anyone away for good. As one random citizen remarks, “She’s right. He’s not good at his job.” Joker (voiced somewhat blandly by Zack Galifianakis), seeking respect from Batman after being slighted by him in the opening action scene, masterminds an evil plan which entails all of the villains turning themselves in, thus leaving Batman with nothing to do.
Just as Joker expected, Batman goes more than a little a crazy, giving in to paranoia and amoral behavior rather than using the opportunity to finally face his demons and mature into a healthier, more well-rounded person. See, The Lego Batman Movie runs with the notion that the one thing Batman fears – more than the Joker, a ticking bomb hidden beneath Gotham City’s energy supply or even clown snakes – is family or, more specifically, being hurt again the way he was when he lost his parents.
It’s not hard to predict where the plot ends up going with this, particularly as Alfred, Robin and Barbara all emerge as willing members of a new Bat family. However, Lego Batman Movie hits us over the head with this “everything is cool when your part of a team” lesson so often and with so little variation it becomes annoying. Where’s Rebecca Bunch when you need her?
That’s what’s wrong with The Lego Batman Movie. You could also critique the animation, not for its quality but for what it lacks in comparison to The Lego Movie. McKay told IndieWire, “I allowed the animators to have more freedom [this time] to express themselves and try and find new ways to use the mini-fig.” By freeing up the animators, Lego Batman Movie sacrifices some of the visual charm of the original Lego Movie, where everything looked as if it had actually been constructed using real Lego sets, consistently drawing attention to itself as a means of setting up the film’s third act twist. The resulting animation in Lego Batman Movie still looks gorgeous and is actually more cinematic; it just doesn’t have quite the same stop-motion charm as its Lego predecessor.
As for what’s right about The Lego Batman movie, take your pick. Literally every other part of the film is a complete joy to behold, from Arnett’s Deadpool-like mockery of the opening and end credits to everything that falls in-between. The third act gets a little out of hand, but in an oddly endearing way since this is meant to be a superhero movie parody, after all.
Perhaps the most ingenious decision the five credited screenwriters and McKay made was to position this particular Batman as existing in the same continuum as all of his cinematic predecessors, from Affleck last year to Lewis Wilson in the first Batman serial in 1943. This is a brilliant realization of the possibilities of adapting this character to animation, where Will Arnett can say something like “I think [Batman] looks pretty good for someone who’s been fighting crime for nearly 90s years” and have it actually makes sense since we’re not actually looking at a human face saying those words. There are nods to just about every era of Batman imaginable, and it has so much fun with such a colorful history that one wonders if WB’s solution to its DC movie problem could be just to have Will Arnett provide Deadpool-like sporadic narration to give voice to what we’re all probably going to be thinking while watching Wonder Woman and Justice League later this year: why can’t these movies be any fun? Because Lego Batman Movie sure is!
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Lego Movie’s cheeky send-up of conformity “Everything is Awesome” told us in its opening lyrics that “everything is cool when your part of a team.” Lego Batman Movie takes this as its mantra, the lesson the hero has to learn, just stripped of any of the irony inherent in that lesson in Lego Movie. However, it beats us over to the head with it the point of annoyance, but it is a small fault in an otherwise joyful film. Lego Batman may lack the depth of The Lego Movie, but it as perfect a celebration and lampooning of everything Batman as you’ll ever find.